A Modest Apostle

Thecla and the History of Women in the Early Church

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Susan E. Hylen
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Increasingly, the analyses of early Christian documents that I find most persuasive take seriously—and in depth—the macro-context of the dominant cultural values and social codes of the ancient Mediterranean world. In this book, Prof. Hylen has done this in an exemplary way, focusing on the critically important value of personal modesty (sōphrosunē), "a quintessential feminine virtue in antiquity” (p.115)

Her approach opens the door to a fresh reading of both the Acts of Paul and Thecla and 1 Timothy, which many scholars have long judged to be strongly opposing responses to the activities of female leaders in the second century of the Christian movement.  Some scholars argue that the Pastoral Letters were written specifically to limit women's leadership roles in response to a separate group of Christ-followers influenced by the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Hylen disagrees and provides plausible, supporting explications of both the broader culture and these documents. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of culture, she writes: "Both works share a wider perspective that encourages modesty and submission, on the one hand, and civic participation on the other. . . . both texts emerge from the same cultural milieu, one with multiple and conflicting norms regarding the virtues and behavior of women" (4).

Hylen begins her convincing disruption of the traditional narrative by countering the view that Thecla became a leading example of the strong female leadership that the mainstream church deemed heretical and sought to marginalize. Scholars have often claimed that Thecla became the poster-child for such negative labeling, which facilitated the later restriction and rejection of female leadership among Christians. In sharp contrast, Hylen presents the evidence that "Thecla grows in both popularity and power as the centuries progress. She is not relegated to heretical groups but is embraced by the church at large" (p.17. Among those writers who praised Thecla as a powerful teacher and an excellent example of self-control are Methodius (third century), Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Pseudo-Basil's Life and Miracles of Saint Thecla (fifth century). Hylen claims that scholars have neglected these writers' positive presentations of Thecla while overemphasizing the brief and incomplete references to Thecla by Tertullian and Ambrose.

In my judgment, the first breakthrough into reading--in their actual psycho-social context--those early Christian documents that mention the leadership of women, emphasized the home-based nature of early Christian groups, so-called “house churches.” Both men and women had grown up watching women exerting leadership in their own homes. This fact apparently provided a psychologically acceptable model for women functioning as leaders (see Nympha and Phoebe), a model that the first generation of Christ-followers boldly expanded into the public realm (see Prisca and Junia). Hylen has taken this cultural contextualization to the next level. She argues that cultural "developments of the first century supported the appearance of women in leadership roles because domestic virtues took on added importance as evidence of civic responsibility" (11). Chief among these virtues was personal modesty, which became prized for both male and female Christ-followers.

In this book, Susan Hylen has created the most convincing narrative I have read about the evolution of gender roles and leadership in early Christianity. Highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Scott Bartchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Origins & History of Religion in the Department of History at UCLA.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susan E. Hylen is Associate Research Professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.



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